The Most Common Pitfalls When an Executive Director Leaves and an Interim Position is Created
“Anyone can be an Executive Director, especially when it’s a short-term fill-in position – how hard can it be, right?”
I have had that conversation more often than is good for my blood pressure. As soon as a Board member of a not-for-profit says “how hard can it be, right?” I know they are headed for trouble. “We have a Board member (or colleague, or donor) who is retired and has time and won’t charge us anything, so he can fill in and we’ll save some cost. I mean, how hard…etc”.
Canadian author Margaret Lawrence once told of being at a cocktail party and talking with a neurosurgeon who said “you know Ms. Lawrence, when I retire I’m going to write a novel”. “What a coincidence” said Margaret Lawrence “when I retire I’m going to be a neurosurgeon”.
Well, it is hard to be an Executive Director and in some ways even harder to be an Interim Executive Director. The learning curve is very steep and an Interim Executive Director has to keep the organization strong, on track with its programs and strategies, manage all stakeholder relations, plus keep staff and systems functioning positively while not making decisions that will have adverse consequences when a permanent Executive Director is recruited. An Interim Executive Director is supposed to come fully conversant with and experienced in grant application processes and regulations, HR best practices for NFP’s, knowledge of fundraising and campaign methodologies, internal and external communications strategies, basic financial management, and the ability to deal with Board/Governance policies and procedures. Someone who has “a bit of time on their hands” and can volunteer for the position but has no direct experience in managing the complexities of a not-for-profit (serving on a Board does not constitute operational experience) will at the very best be less than effective, and at worst leave a time bomb of financial, staffing (usually including plummeting staff morale) and other problems for the permanent person coming in. Like any rule there are of course exceptions, and I am aware of cases where a person with senior and somewhat related experience has been a successful Interim Executive Director, but it is rare.
In addition to the amateur Interim Executive Director issue, here are some of the other most common mistakes made in looking for either an interim, or even a permanent Executive Director:
Job Description – it’s the same but shorter, isn’t it?:
Just taking the full time Executive Director’s job description and tacking “Interim” on to it is not a good idea. The interim position will have different performance measurements from the permanent position and it will have very different operational requirements. For example, an Interim Executive Director will not normally be required to create long-term strategies or program development and should not tinker with those already in place unless funding is in jeopardy or projected outcomes are not being achieved. Also, the emphasis on some aspects of the role will be different and may require, for example, paying closer attention to staff morale and retention in order to maintain stability and continuity, while paying less attention to such aspects as, for example, new capital or brand redefinition and new marketing programs.
We don’t need their advice on anything else, do we?:
One mistake I have seen is the missed opportunity of failing to capitalize on the range of knowledge plus variety of experience that an Interim Executive Director usually brings to the position, or actively discouraging any consulting or advice outside the job description. Assuming this person does not want or is not considered for the permanent position, they can be objective and truthful in providing a point of view about the organization’s operations. Having an experienced and objective consultant as well as an operational leader can be a real bonus and the job description should include providing an assessment of the organization’s strengths, challenges and opportunities for improvement as an exit requirement.
Pay peanuts and you get monkeys:
This, plus “you get what you pay for”, are two clichés that Boards still sometimes forget when hiring for an interim position. Just like the “how hard can it be?” argument, Boards sometimes see hiring an Interim Executive Director as an opportunity to save money. The flawed reasoning is that the interim person will not have the same level of responsibility or skill requirements as a permanent position so they don’t need to be paid as much. Not true and can lead to bad hiring. Granted, the responsibilities are different in an interim role, but no less difficult or demanding and require the same level of expertise and ability as any permanent role. Don’t expect to pay less (or nothing!) and expect the same level of competence. Remember, the interim person is responsible for maintaining your brand, reputation and carefully built donor and other stakeholder relationships. No matter how much money you think you’re saving by hiring someone at a lower rate than the permanent position, a less experienced and low performing Interim Executive Director can cost an organization dearly if those areas are neglected or poorly handled.
Why hire anyone? We can just give a staff member the job for the interim:
ure, add a whole new job to an existing and presumably important one for someone who probably doesn’t want it and isn’t sure how to do it. Plus, when it’s over, that person drops back in status and presumably loses the few extra bucks you were paying temporarily. The job will not be done well, the staff will find it hard to relate to a colleague who is now their boss for a while and the person will resent the whole situation. I have seen it done and it’s a lose/lose proposition. It’s in the same category as “we need someone to handle HR. Susan, who does admin and bookkeeping, can’t be that busy – let’s put her in charge of HR”. As the saying goes, it’s not a problem until it’s a problem. Suddenly the organization has a legal, ethical or performance failure or dismissal issue and Susan is totally out of her depth and the organization is in trouble.
Let’s just ask the outgoing Executive Director to find someone:
Even if the outgoing Executive Director is leaving on positive terms, they will either try to find someone just like them (which may or may not be good) or a friend they know who may not be suitable, or will often go for upgrading a staff member, particularly a close colleague who may have lobbied for the job. Hiring an Executive Director, either interim or permanent, is a Board responsibility. In almost all not-for-profits, the Executive Director is the only employee of the Board and reports directly to the Board, often via the Chair. It is wrong and usually against the by-laws to delegate this responsibility.
How does an organization avoid all those pitfalls and keep things running smoothly? The Board needs to:
- Take on the responsibility for creating a job description and appropriate compensation level designed specifically for an interim position, ideally with professional help.
- A committee of the Board needs to manage the search process.
- The Board needs to review then approve the committee’s recommendation.
- Staff need to be informed fully and positively once the decision is made and before rumours start.
How hard can it be, right? It needn’t be hard at all. Osborne Interim Management can provide a senior, experienced Interim Executive Director and can guide Boards through the whole process of job description, on-boarding and eventual transition to a permanent Executive Director.